WASHINGTON — The Senate was on the verge of approving a $286 billion farm bill Thursday night after repeatedly shrugging off self-styled overhaul efforts.
Now the real fight begins.
The 1,360-page bill set for approval late Thursday or early Friday already has drawn a presidential veto threat. Members of the Senate and House of Representatives must resolve key differences. The coming election year will complicate the politics immensely.
"How do we get a bill that's acceptable to the White House and won't get a veto?" questioned Robert Guenther, the senior vice president of the United Fresh Produce Association. "We want to see a bill signed into law."
Fruit and vegetable growers in states such as California, Florida and Texas support the Senate's farm bill because it dedicates $2.2 billion to $2.5 billion to those so-called specialty crops. That's four or five times the amount provided in the last farm bill, written in 2002.
The House bill, approved in late July, dedicates roughly $1.7 billion to specialty crops.
Commodity producers support the House and Senate bills. Both largely continue current crop subsidies, although the Senate also offers an alternative $15-per-acre payment when prices fall. Rice and upland cotton growers probably would retain their current subsidies, while wheat and feed grain producers probably would opt for the new payments, the Congressional Budget Office predicted.
The subsidized commodity producers prevailed throughout the Senate farm-bill debate. On Thursday, notably, the Senate rejected several high-profile amendments to restrict federal payments.
One would have limited a farm couple's total annual subsidy payments to $250,000, down from the present $360,000. Senate leaders required that the amendment secure 60 votes for passage, and it failed 56-43 Thursday morning.
"We have a federal farm program to help family farmers make it through tough times," said amendment co-author Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "It was not created to send multimillion-dollar payments to giant corporate farms or payments to people who haven't been near a farm in decades."
The second important amendment Thursday would have prohibited crop subsidies to full-time farmers who make more than $750,000 a year or part-time farmers making more than $250,000 a year. The current income limit for subsidy recipients is $2.5 million. Senate leaders set the high 60-vote bar for the amendment and it failed 48-47.
"Do we really want to make it more difficult for the people who are out there getting dirt under their fingernails and caring for the land?" asked Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the senior Republican member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
The next steps will take place behind closed doors, as congressional staffers start reconciling the Senate bill with its 742-page House counterpart.
Many differences are minor. The Senate, for instance, includes a $15 million aid program for asparagus producers. The House doesn't. The House bill sets up a "biomass from biofuels" internship program targeting students from California, Missouri and Georgia. The Senate bill doesn't.
The formal congressional negotiators will start meeting in January. The trickier part will come as lawmakers confront the potential presidential veto.
The Bush administration says the House and Senate farm bills are packed with taxes and budget gimmicks and lack sufficient restructuring. Key political questions are whether Bush really is willing to cast an election-year veto on a bill that's popular in Republican states and whether Democrats can peel away enough Republican members to overcome the president's resistance.